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Northern Ireland's Good Friday Accord, 10 Years On

LYNN NEARY, host:

Ireland's Prime Minister Bertie Ahern announced this past week that he would be resigning amid allegations of bribery. He denies any wrongdoing. It's an awkward exit for a man who played an important role in bringing peace to neighboring Northern Ireland. The key event in those long negotiations came ten years ago this week in Belfast. It was called the Good Friday accord.

Mr. TONY BLAIR (Former Prime Minister, Great Britain): I want to say this to the politicians and to the people of Northern Ireland, with all the force that I can muster, even now this will not work unless in your will and in your mind you make it work.

NEARY: Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair announcing the agreement on April 10, 1998. George Mitchell, former Democratic majority leader of the United States Senate shared the talks that led to the accord. Senator Mitchell joins us now. So good to have you, Senator.

Senator GEORGE MITCHELL (Democrat, Maine; Former Majority Leader, United States Senate): Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Now, the Good Friday accord really was the beginning of a process, of the peace process, and it seemed at times that it might fall apart, yet 10 years later there is peace in Northern Ireland. Why did this accord hold when so many other attempts at peace in other parts of the world have failed?

Sen. MITCHELL: I think the principle factor was pretty simple. The people of Northern Ireland got sick of war, sick of conflict of the fear and anxiety, the random death and destruction and I think they came to recognize that whatever their differences, killing each other wasn't solving them.

NEARY: Is there a moment you can remember when you began to think this might work, I might get these people to actually talk to each other?

Sen. MITCHELL: Just after Christmas in '97 a prominent protestant paramilitary leader was murdered in prison by a group of Catholic prisoners. That touched off a round of retaliatory killings and the talks seemed to about to collapse. And I concluded that it was going to spiral into failure unless we did something dramatic.

And so I hit upon the idea of an unbreakable deadline to force a decision. And the moment that I got the agreement of all the parties to say that come April 10 it's all over one way or another, I knew we had a chance.

NEARY: There were a number of challenges over the past decade to this accord. At times when it seemed like things would fall apart. How durable is it now?

Sen. MITCHELL: Well, there are not guarantees in life and there still remain on each side a relatively small number of diehards who aren't reconciled. But I think that the process will continue, particularly if the economy stays strong. I learned several things in Northern Ireland, one of which is there's no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended.

But a second factor - probably more important - is that there are political issues, religious issues, territorial, national identity, all of those things. But underlying all of these conflicts is an economic dimension. You can't solve them on any sustainable way until you deal with the absence of opportunity, lack of hope - the factors that lead people to take up arms.

NEARY: Are there lessons that can be learned from the Good Friday Accord, the process that you went through that when you look at other areas in the world where there's great tension and long simmering hatred, such as there was in Northern Ireland, what the lessons that can be learned from what you went through with the Good Friday Accord in terms of bringing peace to these other terrible conflicts?

Sen. MITCHELL: On my first day in Northern Ireland, I said to the delegates, I don't bring with me an American plan. There is no Clinton plan; there is no Mitchell plan. Any agreement will be yours. Two years later when I drafted what became the Good Friday agreement I made sure every word in it had come from them.

Now, I had to make big decisions on what went in and what stayed out but nonetheless it was their agreement. Secondly you've got to have a lot of patience. I spent about five years in Northern Ireland doing this job. Third, you can't let the violent fringe dictate the agenda. One of the problems the United States has had in the Middle East is that every time we get a process going and a bomb goes off, the Americans recall our people and say, well, when it calms down we'll send someone back.

That's exactly the wrong message because what it does is hand the agenda over to the men of violence who want to stop the process. What I said in Northern Ireland on the very first day is I'm here to stay. I'm going to stay here until we get the job done. We're not going to stop when there's violence. I don't think we've had a similar approach in the Middle East.

NEARY: And just to get to that point of how very difficult that process is, I know you even had moments where you really didn't, kind of wanted to give up, didn't you?

Sen. MITCHELL: There was one time when I thought seriously about leaving. I was asked by the press almost every day that I was there, well, Senator, you've failed so when are you going home? While they were being difficult, as they often are, they were correct. Until you get an agreement you fail to get an agreement.

In that sense in Northern Ireland we had about 700 days of failure and one day of success. You just have to have the patience and the determination to do it and always to hold out some hope to people that it can be done. That's the task of political leadership really - to create an atmosphere in which people believe there can be success without being unrealistic or foolishly optimistic.

NEARY: Senator George Mitchell, thanks so much for joining us.

Sen. MITCHELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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